x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

The rise of Mahmood al Zarooni

There is great expectations ahead of Rewilding's bid for glory in today's St Leger as the Emirati trainer recalls the last five months with Godolphin.

Rewilding, ridden by Frankie Dettori, storms home in the Great Voltigeur Stakes at York last month, and is widely expected to become a sixth St Leger winner for Godolphin.
Rewilding, ridden by Frankie Dettori, storms home in the Great Voltigeur Stakes at York last month, and is widely expected to become a sixth St Leger winner for Godolphin.

In Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, the protagonist Philip Pirrip ruminates about his first meeting with Miss Havisham, a moment that changes his life forever.

Dickens writes: "That was a memorable day to me, for it made great changes in me. But it is the same as any life. Imagine one selected day struck out of it, and think how different its course would have been … think for a moment of the long chain of iron or gold, of thorns or flowers, that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on one memorable day."

For Mahmood al Zarooni, that memorable day occurred when Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, drove into his stables in the lead-up to the Dubai World Cup in March and motioned for the 33-year-old assistant trainer to get into his car.

Five months later, al Zarooni recounted the story in his office at Moulton Paddocks in Newmarket. Looking around, there were trophies and pictures of past Godolphin successes, a desk, a table and several chairs, a royal-blue carpet, but nothing personal. It was as if he had just moved in.

"I got in the car with him," al Zarooni said. "I was very scared, and we drove for about a mile, saying nothing. I was just sat there thinking to myself, 'What have I done wrong?'

"His Highness turned to me and said, 'Mahmood, I have decided to give you a trainer's licence.' I was in shock, and could barely speak. All I said was, 'Thank you, boss'. "He then outlined what that would mean. It would mean hard work, and would mean that I would have to learn and improve. He did not let me rest one day. He has always been helping me and advising me ever since."

Al Zarooni's first runner came home a winner, Calming Influence capturing the Group 2 Godolphin Mile at Meydan. About four hours later, al Zarooni sent out Allybar to finish third in the Dubai World Cup. It was a remarkable debut. With typical modesty, though, al Zarooni attributed his performance to good fortune.

"It was a big night when Calming Influence won," he said. "When he arrived in the yard, I thought he was a good horse, but I never thought he would win on Dubai World Cup night. But the new Tapeta surface helped him, and he liked it, so we were lucky."

Today, as luck would have it, al Zarooni stands on the cusp of his first British Classic victory. The Emirati trainer saddles a leading contender for this afternoon's Group 1 St Leger, the final Classic of the British season. Having overseen Rewilding's final workout in front of Sheikh Mohammed, he was cautious afterwards when discussing his charge's chances in the Doncaster race, first run in 1776.

"I think Rewilding will run a good race, he's got a big chance," he said. "But I'm going to need all the luck. It's not going to be easy. He's got great bloodlines - he's out of Tiger Hill. But Tiger Hill horses generally get better with age. He's only a baby and he's soft, so we treat him like a filly, not like the stallion that he is."

Like al Zarooni, Rewilding is a new recruit to the Godolphin fold. The three-year-old colt was formerly handled by the French champion trainer Andre Fabre, whose task it is to sift through his Chantilly stable to unearth horses with the ability to join the Dubai-based operation.

In April, Rewilding, Anna Salai, Simon de Montfort and Cutlass Bay were transferred to Newmarket, after which Rewilding won his first race, at Goodwood, by four lengths.

From there, al Zarooni thought he had a genuine Derby candidate, but Rewilding and his regular rider, Frankie Dettori, had to settle for third at Epsom behind the impressive Workforce.

Goodwood and Epsom are undulating racecourses, however, and on Rewilding's first visit to a more conventional track, he won the Great Voltigeur at York last month by four lengths from Midas Touch, the Irish Derby runner-up.

"York was the first time we saw him on a flat track," al Zarooni said. "Doncaster also has a long straight, which is what he needs. "He would prefer good ground, not firm. You saw in the Derby that Frankie was getting after him at the beginning of the race. I thought they were finished.

"But when they came into the straight, the ground was better for him, and Rewilding decided to go. So it is the ground more than anything that is the key to him."

Godolphin have won the St Leger five times, and jockeys wearing Sheikh Mohammed's maroon-and-white silks have triumphed in the race three times.

Last year Godolphin's Mastery won the 1m6f Classic, beating stablemate Kite Wood. Al Zarooni was at Doncaster 12 months ago to watch that race, and even then the unassuming assistant to Saeed bin Suroor had no idea he was being groomed for an integral role in the Sheikh's racing operation.

"It was the first time I had been there, and I loved it. His Highness at that time was taking me around to show me the racecourses. He took me to Epsom, Ascot, Newmarket and Doncaster. I never knew it was in his mind to make me a trainer." Racing relies on form to contextualize and understand a horse's capabilities.

Those who delve into al Zarooni's past will see that his renowned ability to deal with tricky horses was picked up at Ghantoot Stables, in Abu Dhabi, where he joined Rod Simpson's Arabian operation when he was 19.

"Since I was nine years old I liked to ride," he said. "I used to have a group of friends that had horses, and we used to go riding in the desert. It was a hobby. We knew nothing about it at all.

"I was grooming horses in our private farm at home before I went to Rod, so I knew how to groom a horse, I knew how to put a saddle on, I knew how to put a bridle on, but I didn't know the technical things. I had never sat on a flat-race saddle, for instance.

"Arabians are difficult horses to deal with. They are very smart which makes it not easy, but I learned a lot from Rod." From Simpson's stable, al Zarooni - who was born near Dubai Creek in the Naif area of what is now the Deira side of Dubai - moved to Sharjah to work for champion trainer Ali al Raihe.

That is when al Zarooni believes he first gained the notice of Sheikh Mohammed. Dubai's ruler relocated al Raihe to Dubai, first to Metropolitan stables, and then to Grandstand Stables.

If Sheikh Mohammed had acted similarly to the Abel Magwitch character out of Great Expectations, in that he helped and watched al Zarooni from afar, it was His Highness who very publicly stepped in two years ago and offered al Zarooni a position with Mubarak bin Shafya, before giving him the position of assistant trainer to bin Suroor last season.

It is often debated what sort of role Sheikh Mohammed plays in the training of thoroughbreds that race under the Godolphin banner, but al Zarooni confers virtually all the responsibility on his employer.

"He's my master. He's the one telling me to do this, this, this," he said. "He calls me daily, nearly. He must be so busy. "He runs a whole country, but often he comes here to watch the gallops, sometimes for morning and evening lots.

"It is his idea how to work the horses. What they do exactly, what pace they go and over which distances they run. "He tells me: 'Mahmood feed that horse this, or this horse doesn't look too good', and so on." If the relationship between trainer and owner can sometimes be a difficult one, the absolute nature of Godolphin's management structure makes life relatively straightforward for those working in the operation.

They are Sheikh Mohammed's horses and, with the advice of the bloodstock manager John Ferguson and the racing manager Simon Crisford, the Ruler of Dubai also decides the make-up of the equine team that races in his famous colours.

The Maktoum family have horses with trainers all over the world, which in Britain includes John and Ed Dunlop, Michael Jarvis and Mark Johnston, who trains about 100 horses for Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed. Godolphin often cherry-pick the best horses from these trainers, and UAE owners outside the family are always keen to provide talent as tribute to the Dubai leader.

"I have no involvement in this. I am here as a trainer, and whatever I get here in the yard, I deal with it. You could say, I've got blinkers on," al Zarooni said, cupping his eyes with his hands.

"His Highness gets all the videos and he watches all the races. He has a really good team to help him identify all of the horses that we buy. "So often though, he just makes up his own mind. He says, 'This is the one. Let's go and get this one.' You must remember that he's got real experience. He's been in this game for 35 years."

When Sheikh Mohammed first set up Godolphin, it was considered as an elite force that raided the most prestigious prizes around the world from their dual bases of England and Dubai. To date, they have won at the highest level in 12 countries.

Somewhere along the line there was a shift in emphasis, from small and elite to giant and global, which is partly why al Zarooni was brought in. Godolphin's detractors continue to insist that this approach has resulted in the watering down of the operation's quality: all that effort to send out so many more runners for so little increase in monetary return can seems like a waste of manpower.

Al Zarooni revealed the outlook from the inside, however, illustrating that there are other factors at play, such as spreading the name of Dubai, and the UAE as a whole, throughout the world. It is advertising, in a fun, sporting format.

"Godolphin wants to run everywhere," he said, suddenly becoming more serious. We want to measure ourselves abroad against the best to see where we are in the order of things. We want to represent our country and fly our flag everywhere. This is the idea, to put the flag down. In the end, it's all a game."

Racing may well be just a game, but somehow that does not mask the fact that ahead of al Zarooni this afternoon lie great expectations.


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